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Ruffi (Dorset, England)

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The Road to Rescue: The Untold Story of Schindler's List
The Road to Rescue: The Untold Story of Schindler's List
by Mietek Pemper
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A story about life, not death, 10 April 2013
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The name Mietek Pemper probably means nothing to you. But the man should suddenly spring to life if you can recall Ben Kingsley's role in Spielberg's film Schindler's List, partly based on Pemper. This autobiography is centred on Pemper's formal role as Amon Göth's personal secretary at the Płaszów labour camp in Poland. But most illuminating are his three informal roles as: aide to Oscar Schindler, aide to his fellow inmates whose lives he helped save, and aide to justice being a key witness in the trial against Göth and several other SS officers after the war.

Pemper is a young, well-educated yet otherwise ordinary man when his comfortable world was destroyed by the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Forced eventually in to the Płaszów labour camp, the extraordinary times brought out some truly extraordinary feats of life-saving heroism in Pemper.

Why bother to read this book if you've seen the film, or indeed you haven't seen the film because you could not bear to do so? The answer lies less in Pemper's heroism and more in his many insights in to life. Here are just two. The first relates to just how thankless the task of rescuing lives can be, and the second relates to mortality.

Assisting Oscar Schindler in the subterfuge between helping Germany win the war, helping Schindler to the good life, helping save the lives of inmates was literally a `thankless' task. Pemper received no thanks from anyone. The reason owed less to ingratitude and much more to the need for anonymity. Pemper had to manage matters such that he left no trail that would lead back to him and his privileged position. He was an early proponent of working as a self-contained cell yet networking with others to bring relief and rescue from Göth's tyranny.

Reporting directly to the infamously sadistic camp commandant Göth, Pemper repeatedly writes about having to live moment-by-moment. He was convinced Göth would kill him, and that it could happen at any moment because Göth killed or ordered killing arbitrarily. Nor did Pemper take any comfort in his track-record of survival. Instead, he calculated that the probability of him dying was almost inevitable the longer he survived. He figured that the longer he stayed alive the more he amassed knowledge about Göth's activities; not just the atrocities but Göth violating the Gestapo's own camp rules. Pemper could therefore become a valuable witness should the war end disastrously for the likes of Göth. So Pemper figured this posed an increasing threat in Göth's mind, and a threat Göth could easily eliminate.

Pemper leaves the reader to reflect on any parallels between the mysterious mix of mortality being arbitrary yet inevitable as we face it in normal life, and mortality in the extraordinarily brutal setting of Płaszów. Mietek Pemper died peacefully in 2011, aged 91.

Mr. Rosenblum's List: Or Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman
Mr. Rosenblum's List: Or Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman
by Natasha Solomons
Edition: Paperback
Price: Ł6.74

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A roller coaster of a read, 8 April 2013
Natasha Solomons, who hails from immigrant stock, has emphasised that this is an untrue story. Despite being about the fictional aspirations and adventures of Jakob Rosenblum, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, many migrants who are determined to fit in to their host country will recognise some of the deeper and more disturbing threads in her narrative.

Her tale of Jakob's aspirations to become an Englishman, which are not shared by his wife Sadie, starts with Jakob and Sadie's arrival at Harwich. There, he is presented with a leaflet on behaving like a native in his adopted country; a pamphlet that probably echoed the advice contained in George Mikes' `How to be an Alien'.

Jakob assiduously follows this guidance. But when he's arrested as a possible wartime Class-B enemy alien, as so many were, he thinks he must be doing something wrong. Once he is released, he devises his own list of do's & don'ts.

Flushed with the success of the carpet business he has built up from scratch in England, he can afford the Jaguar XK120, the Savile Row suits, and buying marmalade at Fortnum & Mason - all aimed at giving him the superficial resemblance of an Englishman.

But the serious trouble starts when Jack, as he calls himself now and no longer the Jakob his wife fell in love with, delves below the surface of the quintessential Englishman to fulfil the last task on his 150-point plan, which is "An Englishman must be a member of a golf club". Barred, as so many have been, from joining an existing golf club Jack decides to build his own golf course. This eventually brings him to Dorset to realise his dream of being an Englishman by virtue of being a member of an English golf club; albeit one he owns and has created.

It's very difficult to say much more without disclosing the twists and turns, the moments of triumph that turn in to defeat, and the triumphs that emerge from defeat that make this a roller coaster of a read. But what makes it an emotional roller coaster, not just a literary one, are the characters, which Solomons brings to life in this tragic-comedy of errors.

There are friends and foes, bitter rivalry and unexpected alliances, white knights and turncoats, the faithful, and the faithless. Beyond the characters, there is raw emotion: pathos and joy, exuberance and exhaustion, soaring hope, deepening despair, towering strength that comes from a steely resilience, and the cowering that comes from being humiliated.

Natasha's first novel, already translated in to nine languages, holds all the promise of a long and successful career ahead for this Dorset-based writer. At the same time, she has set herself an awesome task as this book is going to be a difficult act to follow.

The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World
The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World
by Kati Marton
Edition: Paperback
Price: Ł8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Don't take this one on holiday, 8 April 2013
Heard the old joke about the wily Hungarian? He follows behind you in to a revolving door but comes out ahead. Perhaps unkind, but many Magyars have a stroke of genius. Kati Marton has chosen nine brilliant stars from a veritable Hunagarian firmament.

As her title indictes, her choice of nine Hungarian Jews is driven largely by two common factors. The first is anti-semitism; the second is that our lives have been brightened, or enlightened as a result of their ideas. But in the case Edward Teller and von Neumann and their attitude to the development of the Atom bomb, some would say our lives have been blighted.

This book is not simply about scientific genius. Marton has chosen subjects from the world of both the arts and sciences. Michael Curtiz directed Casablanca. Alexander Korda produced The Third man. Robert Capa co-founded (with Henri Cartier-Bresson) Magnum Photos, which virtually invented modern photo journalism in which the photo-essayist André Kertesz played a father-figure. Arthur Koestler, one of the twentieth century's greatest political writers, was among the first to expose Stalinist brutality. Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann pushed the frontiers of physics and maths.

As the twentieth century unfolds, Marton unfurls the lives of her escapees to reveal some of the ingrained characteristics of their native Hungary, and Hungarian culture. Her book is not a story of tragedy, but of the enormous success and influence on our modern-day lives.

The story is made real, and endearing by the many anecdotes Marton has been able to tease out from the many interviews she held with contempories of these great escapees. Korda lived in the grandest hotels, when he could least afford them. Capa bought an elegant Burberry raincoat for the Normandy invasion he photographed.

This book is about nine men, all of whom were big thinkers with big dreams. Many of their ideas surround our daily lives. For example, game-theory originally developed by von Neumann underpins the strategic thinking of many of the world's largest corporations.

Many of their dreams, and some of their nighmares, have become our reality. Szilard's mind was his laboratory. In 1933, Szilard was walking the streets of Bloomsbury, when he suddenly realised that if one neutron is shot in to an atom, and more than one neutron is produced, then a chain reaction releasing vast amounts of energy could be the result. In a flash, he realised that a nuclear chain reaction could also mean an explosion.

Marton's "Great escapees..." helps us all to understand the background to many aspects of our lives today, by bringing these nine great escapees to life. But don't do what I did by taking the book on holiday. Hardly able to put the book down, I feel I missed about half the holiday but caught up on some very important lives.

Sum: Tales from the Afterlives
Sum: Tales from the Afterlives
by David Eagleman
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Pick it up (again) at heaven's gate, 8 April 2013
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Those who arrive at the pearly gates totally mystified as to what to expect next will probably be handed a copy of Eagleman's book as a guide to heaven. Here on earth, it's obvious that those who have rated this book highly have "got it" already. Those who haven't will probably make sense of it all only after their arrival in heaven. They say "you can't take it with you", but no worries as there are probably copies just waiting to be picked up on arrival up there.

The Godseeker's Guide
The Godseeker's Guide
by Lionel Blue
Edition: Paperback
Price: Ł9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Lionel Blue's edu-taining, 8 April 2013
This review is from: The Godseeker's Guide (Paperback)
If you've heard him on Radio 4 (Thought for the day) or seen him on stage promoting this book then reading his latest book will 'edu-tain' you. The wonderful thing about this book is he writes as he speaks.

All the great rabbinical traditions of story-telling are finely woven in to what he says and the way he says it. Humour is the thread that holds the fabric together, God's gift (who else?). But humour came to him in a bitter-sweet way, which he recounts in the early chapters. His early-life career choices went unsupported by his parents. The dawning realisation that he was gay made what is often a difficult time through early adulthood in to a time of turmoil.

That turmoil made him turn this way and that. He describes this in the middle passages of the book where he covers an enormous range from the good (Quakers) to the evil (Holocaust), to personal religious self-doubt, or simply how hospital visits as a Chaplain used to make him physically sick at first.

The inner-most heart of the book can be found in the latter parts. His search for himself at every stage in life (including now old-age), for companionship, and for the divine, coupled with his candidness in relating all three is most probably at the root of the attention he commands from his radio listeners, his readers, and his live audiences.

I suspect his magic lies less in his powers as a story-teller and more deeply in his power of listening. As you read what he says, you may think to yourself: that's just what I think, or that's happened to me. As you do, you have the sense that he's not talking to us, he's listening to us.

A Coat for the Moon and Other Jewish Tales
A Coat for the Moon and Other Jewish Tales
by Howard Schwartz
Edition: Paperback
Price: Ł10.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Enchanting for children and enchanting for the inner child, 8 April 2013
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The tales come from all over the world, and span many centuries. That will appeal to anyone with a sense of the history of Jews wandering across continents, sometimes pushed, and sometimes pulled. Some of the tales are about Jewish heroes, like King David or King Solomon, while others are about very poor people. As you might expect, some of the tales are about witches, and monsters.

The great attraction of this illustrated collection is the imagination woven in to the tales. The story that lends its name to the title of the book is probably the best example of this. The story opens:

" Once upon a time the moon came to the sun and said, `It isn't fair that you get to shine during the day when it's warm, while I have to shine at night when it's cold, especially in winter.' The sun saw that the moon was unhappy, so he promised her, `I'll have a coat made to keep you warm."

But the greatest attraction of this collection is that they are all very short stories. Many of these tales reach us today through the ancient oral tradition of story-telling. Maybe they have been shortened over the centuries in order to survive in a form that still entertains us with humour, or thrills us with suspense, or reassures us that we can overcome hardships in today's world as much as they did in centuries past.

Being such short stories they are easy to remember after just one reading, even for those of us whose memory is no longer what it used to be. Being easy to remember, they are easy to recount, and in the telling of these stories to our next generation we ensure that these tales will live on in the centuries to come.

The last word on this book rests with my great-niece, for whom I bought the book: "read my favourite again, pleeeeeease".

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves
The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves
by Stephen Grosz
Edition: Hardcover

86 of 96 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Five stars or one star?, 6 April 2013
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Looking through the numerous and wide ranging reviews this book has already attracted, if you are still considering whether or not to buy it you might find the following explanation useful.

If you buy this book for the wrong reasons you won't get much out of it, and that might help explain the 1-3 star reviews. For example, if you think you are going to get just over 30 sessions (the number of chapters in this book) of psychotherapy on the cheap (the price of this book), think again. Being a fly on the wall during an intimate session between patient and psychotherapist isn't how psychotherapy works.

Nor is there any value in reading it as though this was an exercise in `spot-the ball'. For example, as you read each Chapter you may start to identify with a few of its symptoms or circumstances. You say to yourself `oh, I suffer from that', or `I'm a bit like that'. Well don't think you will find the answer to your problems by the end of the chapter.

But if you buy this book for the right reasons, expect to get a great deal out of Grosz's distillation of some 50,000 hours of conversation in his consulting room over a period of the last twenty-five years, covering a wide range of topics including: telling lies, loving, changing, and leaving. This might help to explain the numerous 4-5 star reviews.

The main benefit of the book lies in his prompting questions, and a few of the generalised lessons he draws out for himself. For example, ask yourself `what haunts you?' after reading his chapter on `How lovesickness keeps us from love.'

Grosz argues that effective desire to change our lives does not come about from fear or other negative emotions, but rather from things that haunt us. For example, we might be frightened of gaining weight, but that alone is unlikely to cause us to change our diet. "Haunting is different." he argues. It makes us feel alive to some fact about the world, or more likely about ourselves, or something we've experienced in the past that we're trying our best now and in future to avoid.

Each chapter is a narrative, sometimes focussing on one individual, sometimes a composite of his clients. In some cases, for example `A passion for ignorance', it reads like a fictional and fascinating short story during which you have to pinch yourself to remember it's based on fact.

The narrative style is deliberate as Grosz want to emphasise his view that we are all storytellers because we want to make sense of our lives in the stories we tell.Understanding ourselves by storytelling is one thing, but it soon becomes clear to the reader how important it is to be listened to (not merely being heard), i.e. being understood.

In his introduction, he sums the book up succinctly by a reference to the philosopher Simone Weil. She describes two prisoners in adjoining cells who learn to talk to each other over a very long period of time by tapping on the wall that divides them. The wall that separates them is also the wall that facilitates their communication. This book is about that wall.
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